Back in 2013, in the months before cancer took over my life, I was able to help give many teenagers the gift of travel.
Not only that, I was able to help give them the gift of a second home. As someone who has different “homes” all over the world, that is something that stays with you forever.
I worked for a high school student exchange organization for the summer and into the school year. I met hundreds of students over those few months. I genuinely enjoyed spending time with them, learning about their countries, cultures, motivations for studying abroad and life goals. My short time in NYC was wonderful but also filled with the trials of a nonprofit wage earner in one of the most expensive cities in the world. But the endless bowls of beans and rice, the 45-minute walks to avoid taking $2.50 off my MTA card, the nervousness of checking my bank account before rent was due – the kids I met made it worth it.
And the most impressive students I met were the YES students. Established after 9/11, it is a State Department program to give promising students from countries with a significant Muslim population a chance to study in the USA for a school year. Not only were these kids leaving their country for a year, most had never had a chance to travel before. So many adjustments – culture, food, holidays, transatlantic flights as well as sometimes things we take for granted like escalators and microwaves. How overwhelming it must be for a kid. And then on top of that, for Muslim students there was the fear of being judged by their classmates as a terrorist.
Wouldn’t it be ironic then, if one of the students who came here as part of a program to allay US fears of terrorism, became a victim of terrorism themselves?
Not suicide bomb, jihadist terrorism that many Americans are so afraid of. But white, male disgruntled misfit terrorism.
Sabika Sheikh did not do her study abroad through my former employer, but I still remember the faces of the YES students I sent on to their host families and “second homes” – innocently, naively, never thinking that they might not return at the end of the year. I see her among them.
But as the mission of the YES program was founded on, we want Americans to not see Muslims as terrorists. To see that it is only a small minority committing these hideous acts and to see that most are utterly appalled.
I hope the same will be true for us Americans. That despite this tragedy, we will not be stereotyped as gun-toting nutjobs. That the great majority is devestated by what happened in Texas and many want change and are continuously saddened that change has not happened.
I will continue to encourage people, in the face of this tragedy, to travel and explore different cultures as much as they can. I will continue to hope that I can someday bring my nieces and nephews over here from Morocco for study. The words from Sabika’s host parents fill me with sorrow but also reaffirm that most people in this big, beautiful world are good.
Sabika and her host family opened up new worlds for each other. That is one good thing to come out of this tragedy and her legacy will live on in the hearts of the people she taught and changed in her short life.